Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trump's wall's continued shockwaves (Jan. 31, 2017)

Heated exchanges between U.S. President Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last week seemed to signal a potential trade war between the two countries. (See last Friday's post and yesterday's briefs.) But Mexico's foreign minister said yesterday that there are positive signs the U.S. administration would seek alternate forms of payment for a wall along the border with Mexico, reports Reuters

Luis Videgaray said he was heartened by White House officials' mentions of plans that could involve somehow taxing drug cartels or undocumented immigrants in order to pay for the wall. "I think it's a welcome sign, at least I interpret it that way, that we're seeing the rhetoric is changing," said Videgaray.

Yesterday Peña Nieto announced the government will earmark $50 million to provide legal assistance for migrants in the U.S., reports the Associated Press.

In the meantime, Trump's Mexico policies continue to cause diplomatic shockwaves. Peña Nieto spoke with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, yesterday. The two agreed to stay in touch and deepen ties, as Trump threatens the NAFTA agreement regulating trade between the three countries, reports Reuters.

But Canadian officials have declared they will prioritize preserving trade ties with the U.S. in a potential NAFTA renegotiation, and might not be able to stand with Mexico.

The AP notes that Videgaray yesterday mentioned his country's willingness to renegotiate NAFTA, but not return to protectionist policies such as import quotas and tariffs.

And Mexico's government is demanding an apology from Israel over a tweet by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently praising walls as an immigration deterrent.
In a tweet on Saturday, Netanyahu wrote: "President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea." In the days since, he has insisted it was only in reference the barrier Israel constructed along the Egyptian frontier, aimed at halting undocumented African migrants. But Mexico diplomats insisted it was offensive, reports Reuters.

The tweet was widely rejected in Mexico. Jewish groups, including the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico, issued a joint statement “forcefully rejecting” Netanyahu’s position, notes the Guardian.

In fact, border walls between friendly nations --largely aimed at keeping out migrants -- are increasingly common, reports the Los Angeles Times. Around the world at least 70 border barriers separated nations from their neighbors as of last October.

Some rays of light: 

Trump's policies could be a potential disaster for Mexico's economy, but he's providing great inspiration for ad-makers in Mexico and abroad, reports the Miami Herald. The latest spot for Corona beer argues that América is already great. And Starbucks advocates "building bridges, not walls with Mexico," and promises to maintain investment in the country, reports Animal Político.

And a New York Times Español op-ed by Ilan Stavans notes the Trump administration's offensive against the Spanish language -- including the elimination of the White House's español site -- and general ignorance in relation to Latin America. "I have the impression that the effort to suppress Spanish and wall in his country will have the opposite effect: each time it will be considered more as opposition. We must learn from the resistance movements organized during Latin America's dictatorships in various moments of the twentieth century. It was through protest songs, the act of storytelling, of poetry in political tones that the population maintained its sanity in difficult times, that is to say, through language. Thanks to Trump, Spanish in the United States is part of the resistance today."

News Briefs
  • Most of the outcry over Trump's immigration orders this weekend have focused on the implications for citizens of banned Muslim countries. But the new policy also suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions program for all nations for 120 days, notes the Miami Herald. That means Latin Americans too, and could particularly affect Cuban medical professionals who have abandoned international missions in order to defect to the U.S. In the 2015 fiscal year 2,300 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean were admitted with most coming from Cuba and Colombia.
  • Brazil's largest criminal organization, the First Capital Command (PCC), is recruiting FARC dissidents as part of its bid to expand its hold over the region's drug trade. The prison gang is working to hire guerrillas in Colombia, reports the Wall Street Journal. The rebel group's 6,000 fighters are in the process of demobilizing under a landmark peace agreement with the government, but the PCC is targeting the 5 to 10 percent of fighters expected to reject the accord. This news item brings together two distinct trends: the PCC's increasingly combative bid to control the drug trade through Brazil's north, as exemplified by the violent prison riots of this month, and the challenge Colombian authorities face in demobilization. (See Jan 27's briefs on how the Urabeños criminal gang in Colombia is also recruiting FARC dissidents, and the post for Aug. 25, 2016 on the power vacuum demobilization will create in some areas of Colombia. See Jan 3's and Jan 9's posts on Brazil's prison riots.)
  • The PCC is already operating in Paraguay and Bolivia, and there are reports that it's using Montevideo as a transit point for international drug trafficking, reports InSight Crime.
  • A newly released International Crisis Group report argues that, after last year's negative plebiscite, "Colombia's peace agreement still lacks sustainable political support. Reversing public distrust will need swift and effective implementation of the accord – including full apologies for past crimes and the visible handover of weapons by insurgents."
  • Peace is already paying off dividends, notes a piece in la Silla Vacía -- FARC fighters are in the midst of a baby-boom, and there are no more troops wounded in combat with FARC guerrillas -- yet neither the political nor media discourse has shifted to reflect these evolving realities.
  • In the meantime, less than half of the guerrillas are in on of the 26 designated concentration zones today, the deadline established for the fighters to gather as part of the demobilization process, reports InSight Crime.
  • Dozens of child soldiers are expected to be released from the FARC in upcoming weeks, reports Reuters.
  • A new report by El Salvador's by the Civil Society Roundtable Against Forced Displacement by Violence and Organized Crime found that 84 percent of the country's forced displacements are due to the country's street gangs, reports InSight Crime.
  • Venezuela's Supreme Court again ratified that it considers the National Assembly in contempt of court and that all of its actions are legally null. The decision yesterday clarified that the opposition-controlled congress doesn't have the right to declare President Nicolás Maduro in abandonment of functions, as legislators did earlier this month, reports the Miami Herald. (See Jan. 10's post.)
  • Maduro uses the threat of outside violence and agression to sow internal fear, he points a rifle at his own people, argues Alberto Barrera Tyszka in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Venezuela is a time bomb," and opposition parties must put aside their internal differences to defend democratic spaces he writes.
  • Maduro announced a PDVSA shake-up on Sunday, aimed at rooting out corruption in the state-owned oil company, reports Reuters.
  • A Sony Pictures Spanish-language television series on the life of Hugo Chávez is causing backlash before it even airs, reports the Associated Press. The 60-episode series was conceived by Moises Naím, a staunch chavismo critic, shows the rise of the populist leader from rural Venezuela and argues that his authoritarian tendencies laid the groundwork for the country's current economic mess. The Venezuelan government has already announced a "counter-attack" miniseries, reports the BBC.
  • Great in-depth piece on InSight Crime on the story of Guatemala's prison king, Byron Lima, who was killed last year. "...The Byron Lima case was about more than murder. It touched on the ongoing battle for Guatemala's soul. Like Lima, the country's efforts to project an image of stability quickly dissolved into corruption and crime. Lima's short-lived empire embodied this dichotomy as well; the order, control, security and progress he sought to create inside the jails clashed with the chaos he himself engendered and his own efforts to enrich himself at the expense of others. ... Depending on who you ask, Lima was a protector or an aggressor, an honorable soldier or an extortionist, a military leader or a smuggler, a future president or a fearsome "king" of the prisons. At the end of day, Lima's murderers were neither the drug dealers, nor his former companions. What killed Byron Lima was the eternal paradox called Guatemala."
  • Guatemalan authorities have arrested the former Interior Vice Minister Manfredo Vinicio Pacheco Consuegra and the former head of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil - PNC), Walter René Vásquez Ceron, who are accused of having illegally awarded five government contracts for the rental of 47 bulletproof vehicles during 2014 and 2015, reports InSight Crime.
  • A major corruption case in Honduras, in which executives allegedly used a Panamanian business and a US bank to pay $2.5 million in bribes could put President Juan Orlando Hernández in an awkward position as he heads into a polemic reelection campaign, reports InSight Crime.
  • The Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe para la Democracia (REDLAD) has a statement denouncing that the Nicaraguan government has detained an OAS report on the country. The platform for more than 520 organizations that defend democracy and human rights, calls on the OAS to create and publicize a report on human rights in Nicaragua.
  • Charcoal is used for cooking across Haiti, but rural producers have long been considered an environmental scourge. Now new research is showing they are not responsible for deforestation, and that a properly regulated artisanal industry could actually combat topsoil loss, reports the Associated Press.
  • Haitian president-elect Jovenel Moïse hopes Trump's business background will lead to a more fruitful bilateral relationship, reports Reuters.
  • While most of Bolivia's capital faces water rationing in the midst of a massive drought, EFE profiles a La Paz community that is self-managing water use through cooperatives.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Brazilian Supreme Court accepts Odebrecht execs' plea testimony (Jan. 30, 2017)

Brazilian Supreme Court president, Judge Cármen Lúcia, approved 77 plea bargain testimonies -- "lighting the wick of a bomb should reach more than a hundred politicians from various parties and governments," including representatives of the the current and previous administrations, reports El País.

The testimony will remain sealed, but is expected to implicate dozens of politicians. Justice Teori Zavaski had been in charge of reviewing and then approving or rejecting the testimony. After he died in a plane crash two weeks ago, prosecutors urged Lúcia to prevent delays, reports Reuters. (See Jan. 20's post.)

The dossiers will be sent to prosecutors today, reports the Associated Press.

The court remains in recess, which is why Lúcia made the decision. The new rapporteur for the Car Wash investigation is expected to be selected later this week by draw among the remaining justices, reports El País. President Michel Temer has said he'd avoid nominating a replacement for Zavaski, given the political sensibility of the case. (See last Monday's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • WOLA has a fact sheet helpful in understanding U.S. President Donald Trump's promise (threat?) of the Mexico border wall. For example, building just 413 more miles of fencing (about 1,317 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border lacks fencing) would cost $11.37 billion. In the meantime, the rate of undocumented migrants trying to cross the border is actually at a historic low. And the much vaunted Central American unaccompanied migrant surge involves people fleeing "unparalleled levels of violent crime in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. (See Friday's post.)
  • After an intense diplomatic face-off between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last week, the two spoke by phone on Friday, a friendly conversation meant to shore up the countries' relationship. But the issue of payment for the border wall remains a major point of contention, reports the Wall Street Journal. The White House said that they "agreed not to discuss how it (the wall) will be paid for publicly, that they will continue to have those discussions privately," reports EFE.
  • A potential trade war between the two countries would hurt Mexico more, but the country is not without leverage to use in negotiations, reports the Washington Post. These include mirror tariffs and potentially taxing corporate profits from the many American companies with operations in Mexico. But potential negotiating points also include the country's cooperation in immigration and drug war issues, such as deporting Central American migrants before they reach the U.S. and targeting local heroin producers to help fight the heroin epidemic in the U.S. 
  • Peru and Colombia promised to stand by Mexico in the midst of potential difficulties caused by Trump's trade policies. Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said members of the Latin American trade bloc the Pacific Alliance must double down on efforts to open markets and strengthen ties as they navigate the "turbulent waters" of protectionist rhetoric, reports Reuters.
  • On the other hand, Peña Nieto, whose popularity level was dismal, has obtained a bump in approval ratings since standing up to Trump last week, reports the Associated Press.
  • Ecuador's foreign minister announced measures to help defend the country's migrants in the U.S., including new call centers and further legal assistance, reports TeleSUR.
  • New Yorker piece by Jonathan Blitzer examines how U.S. deportations have fueled a major call-center industry in El Salvador. About 152,000 Salvadorans were deported under the Obama administration alone, creating an English-speaking population eager for jobs. Former U.S. gang members in particular have found opportunity in the call-centers, with few other employers willing to take them on. Many of the deportees spent significant portions of their lives in the U.S., and are lost in El Salvador. The piece goes into the intricacies of how U.S. deportees created Central America's violent gangs, yet the recent arrivals from the U.S. are viewed as targets and live in fear. 
  • The violence battering Salvadorans is well documented, "but the largest effects of the violence are often invisible. Fear of gangs prevents students from going to school and young people from holding jobs. According to one report, nearly 40,000 children dropped out of school in 2015, primarily out of concern for their own safety. Such is the fear inspired by gangs that even rumors can provoke panic. Last year, word spread that only girlfriends of gang members could have blonde hair; the next day, women around the country began dyeing their hair black to avoid any trouble," explains a New York Review of Books piece by Madeleine Schwartz. She visits San José Guayabal, a town north of San Salvador, celebrated for being "violence free." A policy by the mayor to turn citizens into "antennas" of information has apparently succeeded in a drastic reduction of civilian deaths, though inter-gang violence remains unabated. But there's little data backing the nationally reported claims, and despite lip service to social services, the national government's approach has focused on "mano dura."
  • A new investigation by the Mexican Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) has found that human rights violations committed by armed forces under former President Felipe Calderón's war on drugs increased by 1000 percent. The militarization of the fight against drug trafficking not only failed, said Alejandro Madrazo in a presentation in the national senate, but rather it's proved that violence has increased in municipalities where federal forces operated, reports Reforma. Crime increased by 9 percent under Calderón's administration according to the CIDE's investigation, reports Excelsior.
  • The presentation took place as part of a forum as the Senate debates an internal security law, that would permit armed forces to carry out internal security operations, reports Milenio. The Mexico representative of the U.N. High Commission of Human Rights objected to lawmakers' intent to legalize military participation in internal security, reports Milenio. And he emphasized the need for a better diagnostic before giving "blank checks," reports El Economista. Other members of civil society joined the call for accountability and drew attention to the negative experiences of the past decade, reports la Jornada. (See post for Dec. 9, 2016, for example.)
  • A new program to eradicate coca plantations in Colombia, will offer farmers monthly payments if they voluntarily destroy their crops. They will also be offered loans and guidance to plant alternatives such as fruit trees and cacao, reports the BBC.
  • Colombia's Constitutional Court rejected a request from former attorney general Alejandro Ordoñez Maldonado to nullify a 2016 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, reports TeleSUR.
  • Latin American fuel subsidies -- notably in Mexico and Brazil -- are ending as governments move towards market-driven policies, causing widespread anger among consumers facing increases, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil's prison crisis has brought home the manifold problems of an overflowing penitentiary system. El País profiles pastoral run alternative APACs (Associações de Proteção e Assistência ao Condenado), where -- for a fraction of the costs at a traditional penitentiary -- inmates benefit from extensive support services, reports El País.
  • Brazilian former billionaire Eike Batista arrived in Rio de Janeiro from New York earlier today and was detained by federal police on charges of bribery, including an alleged $16 million bribe to a former governor, reports Reuters. (See Friday's briefs.) 
  • Guatemalan prosecutors believe a current congressman ordered the killing of a local journalist in 2015, reports InSight Crime.
  • Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights post gathers local perceptions of the Operación Liberación del Pueblo, a program of massive armed operations aimed at taming Venezuela's dramatic rate of violent crime, which has been criticized for widespread rights abuses of its own.
  • Nueva Sociedad piece analyzes possible reasons behind Bolivian President Evo Morales' cabinet switch up earlier this month. "The underlying change seems to be wooing the middle classes the government has lost recently due to the focus it put on identifying the cabinet with indigenous and poor sectors, and distributing power among the diverse components of the MAS ruling coalition ... It's not an impossible objective: Morales' administration has a popular approval of 58 percent ..." (See Jan. 17's briefs.)
  • A Carnival turf war in Haiti is blatantly political, with president-elect Jovenel Moïse -- backed by former president Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly -- insisting the national Kanaval festivities will move to Les Cayes, while Port-au-Prince's mayor insists it will stay in the national capital, reports the Miami Herald. When Martelly first took office, he too used the Carnival festivity location as an opportunity to flex political muscle.
  • Haitian voters came out on Sunday for the final round of voting in the extended political cycle that started in 2015. There was low turn out in the election to decide on eight legislative runoffs and to choose 5,500 district authorities in local elections, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • World governments seeking to buck Chinese influence -- especially in Latin America -- would do well to look at the example of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, according to a piece in Foreign Policy. While Macri had hoped to turn away from Chinese funded mega-projects in his county, over the course of his first year in office his administration largely ratified railway and hydroelectric plans created by his Kirchner predecessors. "The outcome in Argentina was not unlike others in the world where domestic political change has threatened major Chinese investments. From Zambia to the United Kingdom, China has been a political punching bag for opposition figures and incoming leaders to scrutinize the initiatives of their predecessors. Once settled in power, however, new leaders tend to roll back the tough talk, realizing the nearly irreplaceable importance of China as a trading partner and investor."
  • Mexico City is about to get a brand new constitution, full of innovative articles promising medical marijuana, promotion of mulculturalism and the right to a dignified death, reports Animal Político. Other important points include the right to the city, and the right to live free from violence.
  • The forest fires which have ravaged 233,000 sq miles of Chile in recent weeks are due to poor planning for climate change and monoculture plantations, reports the Guardian.
  • In the midst of the diplomatic showdown between Peña Nieto and Trump, Vanity Fair Mexico came under fire for a cover portraying Melania Trump "posing with a fork and a string of jewels as if she were about to eat them like spaghetti," reports the Guardian.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Mexico and U.S. potentially heading into trade war (Jan. 26, 2017)

Mexico and the U.S. are in an escalating diplomatic war that threatens to become an all out trade war. The country's two presidents traded threats over this past week -- largely via Twitter -- over who would pay for a U.S. driven wall separating the two countries, leading Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his upcoming trip to Washington yesterday. 

U.S. President Donald Trump retaliated that the decision was mutual and appeared to support a proposal to slap a 20 percent tax on imports, and use the proceeds to pay for the much vaunted border barrier. He also accused Mexico of burdening the United States with illegal immigrants, criminals and a trade deficit.

Though tensions had built up over the course of the U.S. campaign, in which Trump infamously called Mexicans rapists and criminals, Peña Nieto had emphasized an approach focused on dialogue and diplomacy. But he came under intense pressure from across the Mexican political spectrum this week when Trump unilaterally signed an executive order to start construction on the wall, and promised Mexico would pay for it. To add insult to injury, the announcement came as high level Mexican officials were in Washington to lay groundwork for trade negotiations between the two countries.  (See yesterday's and Tuesday's posts.)

The perceived heavy-handed U.S. approach has rekindled historic resentments in Mexico, which the political leadership has played down in recent years, instead favoring cooperation, reports the Washington Post.

Already Peña Nieto has been perceived as insufficiently strong in the face of Trump's bluster, notes the New York Times. With approval ratings in single digits, Peña Nieto proved unable to resist calls to stand up to the neighbor to the north, despite cabinet members urging him to maintain the meeting, according to a separate New York Times piece. Though the diplomatic spat could have potentially broad ranging disastrous consequences for Mexico's economy, it does seem to have united Mexicans around their president yesterday.

It's the first significant diplomatic rift between the two countries in decades, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A planned meeting between Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was cancelled at the last minute yesterday amid the increasing diplomatic tensions.

While White House officials yesterday portrayed the potential import tax as a way of making Mexico pay for the wall, the ultimate costs would be borne by American consumers, note analysts across the board, see this Reuters piece for example.

Yesterday Videgaray -- speaking from Washington -- reiterated that asking Mexico to pay for the wall is unacceptable, noting that a an import tariff would make the American consumer the ultimate patron of the wall's construction, reports Animal Político.

New York Times editorial refers to Trump's "tariff tantrum. ... "It’s hard to tell whether the animus Mr. Trump has conveyed toward immigrants, particularly Mexicans, is deeply felt, or if he simply came to recognize how powerfully it would appeal to voters disaffected by an uneven economic recovery and the nation’s demographic changes. But allowing this view to drive trade and foreign policy toward Mexico could have disastrous consequences for workers and consumers in both countries ..."

News Briefs
  • Nafta-inspired foreign capital turned Monterrey into Mexico's free-trade capital, reports the Wall Street Journal. Now everybody from workers to industry owners are scrambling to figure out what would happen if the free trade agreement is scrapped.
  • Mexico's border cities are already overwhelmed with migrants from other Latin American countries trying to enter the U.S. -- now some advocates and officials worry Trump's actions to tighten access will be a potential nightmare for Mexico, reports the New York Times.
  • Trump's anti-migrant rhetoric is increasingly echoed in the region, reports InSight Crime. In Argentina Security Minister Patricia Bullrich announced plans to tighten immigration regulations, accusing Paraguayan, Peruvian and Bolivian citizens of participating in the drug trafficking chain. Earlier this week Reuters reported that a wave of immigration from Haiti and Venezuela has pushed anti-immigration sentiments into Chile's presidential election. Both leading candidates have called for a more selective entry policy. InSight emphasizes Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's blaming of Colombian "fascists" and "paramilitaries" for everything from drug trafficking to social protests and has accused them of plotting political assassinations. 
  • A series of reports are pointing to a wave of migration out of Venezuela, spurred by crime and insecurity, reports InSight Crime. This in addition to the thousands leaving due to the economic crisis.
  • Yesterday the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) voiced concern about information indicating that many Venezuelans have been forced to migrate to other countries in the region as a means of survival, due to the humanitarian situation—particularly the effects of shortages of food, medicine, and medical treatment. In particular the organization called on member states to refrain from adopting measures that restrict or violate the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers from Venezuela, mentioning specifically attempted deportations from Brazil.
  • CELS joined a group of 150 organizations denouncing the proposed changes to Argentina's migration law, noting that the current law provides the tools that would allow for limiting the residence of a person who committed this type of crime. "It is true that the incidence of foreigners in drug offenses is greater than in other offenses, although it is much lower than what the minister said. But this is a phenomenon that is seen in nearly all of the world’s countries, since drug trafficking often has a cross-border component."
  • Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez warned that one of the country's biggest crime groups, the Urabeños, appears to be recruiting dissidents of the demobilizing FARC guerrilla group, reports InSight Crime. Throughout the peace negotiations analysts emphasized the potential for criminal organizations to fill the power vacuum that would be created in FARC controlled areas. Now this information points to the financial incentives offered to former fighters, which, added to concerns that the government won't follow through fully with social and economic rehabilitation programs planned by the peace agreement, could lead to more desertions, according to InSight.
  • "The murder in Mexico of indigenous activist and human rights defender Isidro Baldenegro López highlights the inevitablity of deadly collisions between environmental activists and organized crime across Latin America," according to InSight Crime. (See Jan. 19's post.)
  • An investigation into money laundering allegations against Haitian president-elect Jovenel Moïse, just weeks before he takes office, threaten the country's tenuous political stability, reports InSight Crime. National legislators have asked the judiciary to wrap up the investigation before the Feb. 7 swearing in, while an international petition is asking to delay the assumption. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Brazilian police declared former billionaire businessman Eike Batista a fugitive from the law yesterday, after a failed attempt to arrest him in relation to allegations that he paid $16.5 million in bribes to the former governor of Rio de Janeiro state, reports the Wall Street Journal. Police raided Batista's Rio de Janeiro home yesterday, but he was out of the country. The case is related to the ongoing investigation into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras, reports the New York Times.
  • The Petrobas corruption investigation has already ensnared a significant number of elite politicians, is threatening President Michel Temer's administration, and has unconvered corruption in other countries around the region. Yet recent developments could double the size of the case, according to the lead prosecutor in the case, reports the Associated Press.
  • Profits from customs fraud and contraband in Guatemala equalled about 3.5 percent of the country's GDP in 2015, according to a new report by ASIES. The numbers "offer a glimpse of the astonishing levels to which commercial crime and corruption have penetrated the Guatemalan economy," according to InSight Crime.
  • The former governor of Mexico's Nuevo León state Rodrigo Medina was arrested yesterday to prevent him from fleeing charges of embezzlement and crimes against state property, reports Reuters.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri represents could represent a turning point in Argentine politics: an alternative to the two traditional mainstream parties. In his first year of government he has successfully implemented a raft of policies aimed at opening up the country's economy, but which threaten his administration's political continuity, writes María Victoria Murillo in a New York Times Español op-ed. While the electorate granted his center-right Propuesta Republicana a broad mandate in the 2015 elections, he has failed to use the opportunity to strengthen his political movement and coalitions, she notes.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trump's wall is threatening Mexico relationship (Jan. 25, 2017)

U.S. President Donald Trump signed orders yesterday to immediately start construction on a wall the border with Mexico and to aggressively find and deport illegal immigrants, reports the New York Times. The actions caused extensive anger in Mexico, and could push Mexico's government -- conciliatory in the face of Trump's aggression until now -- to take a stronger stance in negotiations, reports the New York Times separately.

Trump's orders, though symbolic to an extent, were perceived as particularly aggressive coming on the same day that high level talks were starting between Mexico's Economy Minister and the U.S. administration. And Trump's approach could force the Mexican government into a harder stance. Already President Enrique Peña Nieto is considering canceling his visit to Washington, scheduled for next week.

Yesterday in a nationally televised speech he condemned the U.S. decision and repeated that Mexico would not pay for the wall -- in response to Trump's reiterated assurances to U.S. citizens that Mexico will foot the construction bill, reports the Associated Press.

And today Trump upped the ante: he threatened to cancel the upcoming meeting himself, if Mexico refuses to pay for the wall, reports the Financial Times. "If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting" he tweeted.

In turn, Mexican officials said cancellation would fuel uncertainty, reports Reuters.

Yesterday, signing the executive order, Trump assured Mexicans that the wall would benefit them as well, and usher in a period of improved relations, reports Animal Político.

Yet, "his actions are starting to reverse a quarter-century of bipartisan policies aimed at fostering greater integration between the two neighbors," notes the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times editorial board notes that the wall order depends on Congress approving billions of dollars in funding, and that insisting on Mexico paying is "either deceitful or delusional." Cutting off aid to Mexico, as Trump has appeared to threaten would only save about $142 million annually, "which doesn’t begin to pay for a wall along the 1,989-mile border. Besides costing billions, the type of barrier Mr. Trump has proposed would cause severe environmental damage and lead to lawsuits over private land."

In Mexico there is a growing feeling that Peña Nieto has been excessively weak in the face of Trump's bluster. Opposition leaders yesterday urged Peña Nieto to cancel his meeting with Trump, reports the Los Angeles Times. Yesterday opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador -- a leading contender for the 2018 presidential election -- urged the government to take legal action in the U.N. over the wall, reports Reuters.

While Mexico's political leaders have spent recent decades seeking cooperative relationships with the country's neighbor to the north, the current situation has officials seeking an arsenal of weapons to use in trade negotiations. Mexico "must convince Mr. Trump that if he blows up the trade agreement on which Mexico has staked its hopes of development, by weaving its economy ever more closely into that of the United States, the United States will suffer, too," writes Eduardo Porter in the New York Times.

Hints of a strategy aimed at including security and immigration concerns in the trade negotiations started emerging this week. (See Tuesday's post.) 

"NAFTA fundamentally reshaped North American economic relations, driving an unprecedented integration between Canada and the United States' developed economies and Mexico, a developing country," notes a Council on Foreign Relations report from this week. 

Another New York Times piece analyzes NAFTA and potential changes, including changing "rules of origin" and easing customs processes.

On the issue of the wall: about a third of the border is already walled, much of it since 2005, reports the Financial Times, citing WOLA. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) estimates it would cost more than $11bn to build 413 more miles of fencing. And illegal immigration has vastly decreased in recent years, thanks in large measure to Mexican efforts to detain Central American migrants before they reach the U.S. border.

The overall aims of the wall itself are also fiercely disputed, notes the Guardian. Mexican immigrants have tended to return to their home country since the end of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and research shows that immigrants are more law-abiding than "natives."

And some migrant advocates worry that the project will merely force would-be migrants into ever more dangerous routes in their attempts to reach the U.S., reports the Los Angeles Times.

The big winners of the massive construction project could be Mexican cement companies and construction workers, according to the Guardian in a separate piece that notes the pharaonic project could cost $31bn and take 40,000 people more than five years to construct.

News Briefs
  • Cuba is willing to continue negotiations with the U.S. under Trump, but won't "make concessions inherent to its independence and sovereignty," said President Raúl Castro, according to the Associated Press.
  • Trump Tower Punta del Este, a luxury development in the exclusive Uruguayan beach destination, no longer has pictures of the U.S. president and his adult children in the promo material, but his name still gives potential buyers confidence, reports the Associated Press.
  • New York Times Magazine feature focuses on undocumented college students who came to the United States as children and face an uncertain future. Many are enrolled in the Obama DACA program, which permits them to register with the government and receive a two-year renewable protection against deportation, along with work permits and Social Security numbers. Yesterday Trump promised a new policy for the so-called "dreamers," saying they should not be "very worried," reports Reuters.
  • The reinstatement of a U.S. policy withholding USAid funding from any organization that offers abortion services or information -- the so-called "global gag rule" -- could have a chilling impact on work done in Latin America by family planning organizations, reports the Guardian. It could hinder broader civil society program, such as contraception provision and campaigns to combat HIV/Aids, but also strengthen conservative movements opposed to reproductive rights in the region.
  • Central American countries hope Trump's trade pact rejection mania overlooks the Central America Free Trade Agreement. It's terms are so favorable to the U.S. they think it could remain, reports AFP.
  • In a summit this week the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States backed dialogue in Venezuela, condemned the criminalization of irregular migration and demands that Washington return to Cuba the military base at Guantanamo and end "without conditions" the US economic embargo against that country, reports EFE.
  • Assassinations of human rights defenders in Colombia rose last year. Many of the murders are attributed to right-wing paramilitary groups opposed to the FARC peace accord, reports Reuters. Last year 117 rights activists were killed compared with 105 in 2015, according to the Bogota-based Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ).
  • Human Rights Watch reiterated concerns over the definition of "command responsibility" in bills related to the FARC peace accord. The existing wording could allow military commanders to escape accountability for human rights crimes committed on their watch. "The prospects that Colombia achieves a just peace relies on the guarantees that those most responsible for atrocities will be adequately held accountable. The availability of a definition of “command responsibility” that conforms with international law serves an indispensable role in achieving that purpose."
  • Colombia's homicide rate has consistently dropped since 1992 when the country's major cartels were dismantled (with a few reversals), though experts are not in agreement over why exactly, writes Juan Carlos Ruiz in la Razón Pública.
  • Latin America is suffering a "populist hangover," according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's latest Democracy Index report. "The region's average score has slumped over the course of a decade, from 6.37 in 2006 to 6.33 in 2016. Latin America is still some way from catching up in terms of democratic development with Western Europe (average score 8.40) and North America (8.56) and cannot afford to suffer a regression, as it did in 2016." While in the rest of the world 2016 marked a rise in populist rhetoric, in Latin America the year marked a turn away from the Pink Tide governments and towards centrist and right wing leadership, notes the report.
  • Haiti's president-elect, Jovenel Moïse, was questioned for four hours by a judge, in relation to fraud allegations, reports the BBC.  Moïse met with the judge yesterday in a closed door session which he went to voluntarily without a lawyer, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • At least 12 Haitians died trying to reach Turks and Caicos in a wooden boat. Three illegal vessels reached the British territory last month, and illegal immigration is a key priority for the new premier, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Brazil is facing a large outbreak of yellow fever, reports the BBC.
  • São Paulo’s new mayor, a former reality TV star, is planning a vast privatization of the city's assets in order to raise about about $2.2 billion. Everything from the city's carnival revenues to cemeteries are on sale. João Doria, who won by a landslide in an election marked by voter rejection of establishment politicians, has already gotten rid of the city’s fleet of 1,300 cars and told his staff to use Uber instead, as well as instituting fines for employees who are late to meetings, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Puerto Rico's new governor says the island will never escape its economic slump unless it becomes the U.S.'s 51st state, reports the Miami Herald. He is pushing for a vote this spring to allow residents to choose whether to turn the commonwealth into a state, and says the U.S. Congress is morally obligated to comply with the results.
  • Wildfires in southern and central Chile have destroyed around 300,000 acres of forest land and killed three firefighters over the past week, reports the New York Times. The blazes have been amplified by a prolonged drought and high temperatures, while containment has been complicated by strong winds and smoldering ash. Help has come from France, Peru, Mexico and the United States, including the world's largest firefighting aircraft in a fire-fighting operation funded by a wealthy Chilean resident in the US, reports the Guardian.
  • The first Cuban exports to the U.S. since the trade embargo was instituted about 50 years ago -- artisanal charcoal -- arrived this week, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Fidel Castro's death hasn't reduced his presence in Cuba, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Argentina's human rights community is up in arms over a government move making the National Day of Remembrance a moveable holiday. March 24, which marks the day of the last military coup and the start of a repressive regime that disappeared about 30,000 people, is a national holiday. Traditionally it is commemorated with massive marches, which some say the government seeks to undermine by moving the holiday to create a long weekend, reports Página 12.
Página 12

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Regional leaders reacting to Trump's proposals (Jan. 25, 2016)

U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed protectionist policies are uniting Latin American leaders, who called for mechanisms to shield their economies. The issue dominated a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States meeting in the Dominican Republic yesterday, reports the Associated Press.

Peru's government called for an alternative free trade agreement with China and other Pacific countries after Trump pulled out of the key TPP accord earlier this week, reports AFP. This week Mexico's president also pledged to seek agreements with TPP countries. (See yesterday's post.)

Trump's promises to renegotiate NAFTA growing number of Mexican officials and businesspeople leaning towards opting out of the agreement altogether to avoid years of negotiations, reports the New York Times. Both the Economy and Foreign Relations ministers yesterday indicated that the country would abandon NAFTA, reports the Associated Press.

Trump is expected to sign an executive order today to start work on a wall on the country's border with Mexico, reports the Associated Press. The actions include plans for hiring 5,000 more U.S. border agents and a call for local law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities, according to Reuters.

Trump's policies threaten to throw Latin American economies back into recession, just as they were starting to climb out, argues Colombia professor José Antonio Ocampo in a piece on Project Syndicate.

Curiously, the region's populist leadership is more inclined to embrace Trump, though the motivation might be more pragmatic than ideological, reports Americas Quarterly.

News Briefs
  • Just two weeks before swearing in, Haiti's president-elect Jovenel Moïse is already under investigation for money-laundering, reports the Miami Herald. A Haitian judge is investigating a report by the government's financial crimes unit indicating that the incoming president may have laundered millions of dollars through a local bank. Moïse, whose campaign advocated strengthening anti-corruption mechanisms, has dismissed the suspicions.
  • No sign of mechanical issues in the plane crash that killed Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki last week, fueling already intense speculation over what happened to the judge overseeing a landmark corruption case against dozens of prominent politicians, reports the Guardian. Last week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights urged Brazil to conduct an “especially careful and timely investigation” due to Zavascki’s position. The accident occurred just before Zavascki was due to rule on the eligibility of testimony from Odebrecht executives thought likely to implicate some of the country's most powerful politicians. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Brazil's top labor prosecutor said President Michel Temer's proposals to relax labor regulations are unconstitutional and break international labor conventions, reports Reuters. A bill sent by Temer to Congress would double the limit on temporary work contracts from three to six months. It would also allow longer workdays though keep the 44-hour week. Temer's administration argues that the modifications are necessary to reduce business costs and help pull the country out of recession.
  • Temer invited the U.S. military to use an Amazon missile launch base to launch satellites, reports TeleSUR.
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said a police reform commission will continue working until next year, reports InSight Crime. The Comisión Especial para el Proceso de Depuración y Transformación de la Policía Nacional began work in April of last year, after media reports indicated high level police involvement in the 2009 assassination of the country's "drug czar." (See post for April 6, 2016.) The reform has thus far led to the firing of 2,500 police officers, which amounts to almost 18 percent of the entire police force. Twenty-eight percent of the agents who were fired held high-ranking positions, reports InSight.
  • A wave of immigration from Haiti and Venezuela has pushed anti-immigration sentiments into Chile's presidential election reports Reuters. The views, similar to those espoused by Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen are a rarity in Latin American elections. Leading candidates Sebastian Pinera and Alejandro Guillier have both called for a more selective entry policy.
  • Colombia's second largest guerrilla force, the ELN, says its ready for a bilateral ceasefire with the goverment, reports Reuters.
  • In a visit to Colombia, French President François Hollande praised the country's peace process with the FARC, calling it an example for the world, reports EFE. He pledged to continue aid for the process, in the same week that the U.S. Secretary of State nominee promised to review the landmark peace deal in order to determine whether to continue U.S. funding. (See Monday's post.)
  • Ecuador's ruling party presidential candidate is leading in polls for the upcoming presidential election, but is unlikely to win outright in the first round of voting. Polls predict Lenin Moreno, the government candidate, would lose in a second round of voting, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Panamanian prosecutors have filed money laundering charges against 17 people linked to the bribery scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reports EFE.
  • Looking for the perfect tan? Check out this Associated Press piece on the Brazilian solution involving electrical tape. (And no, your dermatologist will not support you on the quest.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Poor turnout in Venezuelan opposition march (Jan. 24, 2017)

Turnout at a march against the Venezuelan government was relatively small -- several thousand people -- a sign of how the political opposition is failing to build a united front, even as the national crisis worsens, according to the Washington Post. Political opposition leadership demanded new presidential elections, and a date for regional elections which are supposed to happen this year, reports Efecto Cocuyo

Complaints about shortages were expressed creatively, with protesters throwing empty medicine cartons and proffering flour to police, reports Reuters.

Last year, about a million people turned out to demand a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro, and about 80 percent of the population has a negative view of the government. Polling firm Datanálisis head Luis Vicente León told the WP that "the protest is a measurement of the motivation" of Venezuelans. "Motivation has decreased because the opposition doesn’t have a common aim." A government crackdown on some members of opposition parties could have an additional chilling effect. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

There are reports of police officers around the capital preventing marches, yesterday. Because of this, moving forward, the opposition will be carrying out "suprise mobilizations" rather than conventional protests, said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, according to Efecto Cocuyo.


Peña Nieto defends national sovereignty and promises dialogue with U.S.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto set out his country's baseline negotiating points ahead of high level meetings with the U.S., reports the Associated Press. Mexico will neither seek confrontation nor submission in the face of the new U.S. administration's bluster, said Peña Nieto in a foreign policy speech promising to defend free trade, respect for the rights of migrants and the remittances that are an important source of foreign revenue for the country, reports the Washington Post.

Mexico will seek to diversify its trade and political relations, even as the government promises to fight to protect NAFTA, reports the Wall Street Journal

And any changes to NAFTA must form part of a broader package -- encompassing migration and security as well -- emphasized Peña Nieto, according to the New York Times. Security and migration issues give Mexico a form of leverage, as its increasingly cracked down on migration through its southern border, forming the first line of defense against migrants aiming for the U.S. The Mexican strategy, while maintaining a defense of the free trade agreement, would seek to ask for changes of its own, such as incorporating telecommunications, energy and electronic trade in a new agreement. 

Coming after Trump's withdrawal from  Trans-Pacific Partnership, Peña Nieto said in his speech that Mexico would seek to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with members of the TPP. Peña Nieto will travel to Washington next week, and members of his cabinet will be meeting with senior Trump administration officials tomorrow. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

Yesterday Mexican officials made the case that the country serves a vital role for the U.S. economy as well, notes the WP. And today Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Mexico could pull out of NAFTA if a renegotiation of its terms does not benefit it, reports the Associated Press separately.

Peña Nieto's speech emphasized national sovereignty, responding to citizen fears of a weak response to Trump, and could be a means of bolstering his low popularity ratings, according to the NYT.

In reference to Trump's key campaign promise to physically block transit between the two countries: "Mexico does not believe in walls,” Peña Nieto said yesterday. “Our country believes in bridges."

News Briefs
  • The Associated Press has a piece accompanying DACA recipients who took advantage of a provision to leave the U.S. for academic reasons or family emergencies and then legally return. Many used the opportunity to visit family and homes they left as children and were never able to return to due to their illegal status in the U.S. The Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals gave work permits to immigrants brought to the U.S as children and living in the country illegally.
  • A group of 91 Cubans stranded in Mexico after the U.S. suddenly changed its special immigration policy earlier this month were deported back to their country, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The abrupt end to the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed Cubans to remain in the U.S. was aimed at solidifying the Obama policy of engagement with the island, whose government had long opposed the policy that promoted brain drain. But it also provided an escape valve for people dissatisfied with the Communist government, making it less clear that Cuba's leadership was the winner in this change, according to the Miami Herald. The piece has experts debating whether the tactic, portrayed as a way of forcing change on the island, will effectively do so.
  • The extradition of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán might be a coup for the U.S. justice system, but it's unlikely to impact the international drug trade, reports the Guardian.
  • Ecuador is heading to presidential elections on Feb. 19. President Rafael Correa is not eligible to run, though his Alianza País coalition is seeking to stay in government through candidate Lenin Moreno. TeleSUR profiles the main candidates.
  • Peru's government announced that it will terminate a contract with a consortium led by Odebrecht SA to build a $7-billion natural-gas pipeline today, another blow to the Brazilian construction giant implicated in massive corruption scandals, reports the Wall Street Journal. The company has faced backlash around the region since admitting last month that it paid nearly $800 million in bribes, most of it in Latin America, to secure public works contracts.
  • Anti-bull fight protesters clashed with riot police yesterday in Bogotá, outside the city's first bullfight in four years, reports the Guardian. This week the country's highest court will debate whether the practise violates Colombian laws against mistreatment of animals. In 2015 constitutional court ruled that bullfighting was part of the country's cultural heritage and could not be banned.
  • Jailed former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has been granted house arrest in order to prepare for brain surgery, reports the Associated Press.